Antarctica is a cold, mostly barren continent, defined by its isolation and snow. It is also a place that has been set aside for peace and science. The challenges of this desolate and harsh environment provide the necessary surroundings to foster teamwork and collaboration for those living and researching there.
This environment of teamwork makes Antarctica a perfect location to bring 99 female leaders from around the world together to focus on building a network and community of leaders. This year, among these leaders was Biology professor Kirsten Müller. Professor Müller spent just under a month around the southernmost continent of our planet in November and December, and came back empowered and inspired to make a difference within the Waterloo community, and beyond. “When you take a group of really strong women, and you remove them from the distractions of everyday life, and you ask them what kind of leaders they are, you create a real sense of empowerment. You allow these women to really explore what they want to give back to this world, and what that actually looks like,” reflected Müller.
One of the biggest lessons that Professor Müller took away from her experiences was the power and impact of personal stories. Stories engage people. They create community. They allow the storyteller to share more about themselves.
“I think, in order to build better communities, which we talk about at UW a lot – it’s in our strategic plan, student experience is in our plan, experiential learning is in our plan – the basis of all of that is stories, and how we can relate our own experiences and share it with other people.”
Since sharing stories is such a large part of the impact of the Homeward Bound program, we asked Professor Müller to reflect on and share the story of her experiences in Antarctica.
I have been back in Waterloo for almost a month having left behind the beautiful and harsh landscape that defines Antarctica with different shades of blue in the sea, ice and sky and the 98 inspiring women who joined me on this voyage. Our days on the ship in Antarctica were filled with conversations of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), climate change, our impact on the planet, how a new leadership model is sorely needed and how we can all be authentic leaders. All of this against a back drop of incredible beauty yet where the impact of human activity is clearly evident from warming temperatures on the Antarctic peninsula, invasive species, melting sea ice, and shifting and decreasing populations of numerous species. Antarctica does not have a permanent human population; however, we became critically aware human activity is having a profound impact even in this isolated region of our planet.
At the end of the three week voyage, it was a bit of a shock, to arrive in Argentina and be instantly overwhelmed with email, social media, news from home and events happening on the world stage. Many of the women in this leadership program call Australia home, and the bushfires that were raging through their home country was one of the first pieces of news that I faced, along with the concerned faces of my new friends. Forest fires and connections to climate change had been a topic that came up frequently in our Symposium at Sea – where each woman shared a three minute story about their leadership, research, or journey to being in the Homeward Bound program. For myself, forest fires have been in the forefront of my mind since May 2016, when I watched from Waterloo as my hometown of Fort McMurray was overrun by a major forest fire and then evacuated. That same week, my father passed away in Edmonton, the coroner’s report noted that the extreme heat and poor air quality due to smoke were contributing factors to his death. This made me realize that climate change is personal, not an abstract idea that we discuss and see on the news, it is and will affect each and every one of us. As a result of this experience, an aspect of my research today examines the impact of forest fires on the Canadian landscape and the resulting algal blooms that occur following such events. I heard so many stories in our Symposium at Sea, from women, who have directly witnessed the dramatic changes in their communities, research areas and lives due to climate change (see on twitter: @AnikaMolesworth, @drmparrot, @mcmsharksxx, @reefscientist, @DrCLanglais, @cassandrafish, @justine_d_shaw). I recognize now that these deeply personal events can shape how we focus our research or career direction and enable us to lead in ways that perhaps we did not expect but are in line with what we deeply value. Personal stories on the individual impact of climate change is, in my view, the key to catalyzing change.
Since we left Antarctica, our Homeward Bound cohort communicates daily and these conversations have been almost solely focused on the fires in Australia: evacuations, species loss, and how can we make a difference individually and collectively. We are already using the skills we learned on the voyage to galvanize action, whether it be asking how other countries provide water and food to domestic farm animals in natural disasters, to fundraising opportunities at local and global levels and how to create change in the wake of such terrible events. This is happening while many of the communities that my Australian colleagues live in are still at risk from bushfires. The motto of Homeward Bound is #StrongerTogether and in less than a month after this voyage, this rings true for me more each day. Together we have developed skills in leadership, strategy, communication and visibility and we are connected in a strong network of women in STEMM. We are ready to impact decisions to address the sustainability and the state of leadership on our planet.